This is all true, and important. But, perhaps even more important, educational failure puts our very democracy at risk.
The current educational reform movement, embraced by both Romney and Mr. Obama, started out with the loftiest of goals (literally, “no child left behind”) and the critical imperative of expanding educational opportunities irrespective of race and income. The focus in education circles has become academic rigor and measurable outcomes, with a push for higher standards, testing, teacher accountability, and school choice.
In some respects, significant progress has been made in recent years on these fronts. We have seen the emergence of high performing charter and traditional public schools; greater visibility and measurement exists around student and teacher performance; and revolutionary teacher hiring and compensation approaches have led to a better talent pipeline. All of this would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
But while this progress is cause for celebration, operating with such a narrow focus has led reformers and policymakers to a classic pendulum-swing problem. The intense drive to boost academic outcomes, which continues to be measured in this country today primarily by standardized test scores – and usually in just math and reading – has developed an unfortunate consequence: Even the best-intentioned education reformers have contributed in recent years to an increasingly narrow focus on academics and basic skills.
One of the first casualties of this narrowing focus was a main force behind the creation of our nation’s school system: civic education. Creating informed and engaged citizens was an original purpose of public schools. Unfortunately, in focusing so intently on academic outcomes in math and literacy (and sometimes science), schools have cast civics aside.